On Tuesday, November 18, 2014, the United States Forest Service’s (USFS) Southern Regional Forester issued a Revised Land and Resource Management Plan and Record of Decision allowing natural gas drilling to take place on 177,200 acres of the George Washington National Forest located in Virginia and West Virginia. The new plan will go into effect in early 2015.
Notably, the plan does not prohibit operators from utilizing hydraulic fracturing technology to develop the forest lands. This differs from the original draft management plan which would have prohibited horizontal drilling. Prior to beginning operations, however, all development proposals are required to undergo an additional environmental impact analysis and will be subject to public comment.
The USFS’ announcement comes just months after Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett similarly lifted a 2010 moratorium banning Pennsylvania from leasing public parks and forest lands.Following Governor Corbett’s decision, Pennsylvania negotiated a settlement with environmental groups which barred the issuance of any new leases until the Commonwealth Court ruled on a related lawsuit regarding whether Corbett’s decision to use funds from natural gas leasing in the general budget violated the Pennsylvania constitution. Oral arguments in that case were held in October but no ruling has been issued to date.